Colin Powell, We’ll Miss You in the ‘Sensible Center’
When I heard that former Secretary of State Colin Powell had died, my mind raced back to the autumn of 2004, when I asked him whether he had given a thought to resigning.
At the time, the Iraq War was going as badly as he predicted it might, back when he reportedly was the most prominent opponent within George W. Bush’s administration of such a drastic action.
“If you break it, you own it,” he reportedly had told President George W. Bush in what was quickly dubbed “Powell’s Pottery Barn rule.”
But his resistance eventually wore down against persistent war proponents. In February 2003, he delivered what he later would call a painful “blot” on his otherwise spotless record: a 76-minute speech to the United Nations in support of war to rid Iraq of its alleged weapons of mass destruction.
As the intelligence about WMD later proved bogus, many war critics called for Powell to resign. I asked, had he thought about quitting?
“I don’t quit,” he responded bluntly. “There have been up days and down days,” he continued. “There always are in every job I have ever had. But I believe that we are doing some very important things in the world.”
But as he proceeded to list a bunch of those “important things” that, indeed, were significant, I could not help but recall a classic 1960s-era editorial cartoon of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s impressive list of legislative achievements partially covered by a huge ink blot with white letters saying, “Vietnam War.”
Similarly, Powell’s resume is full of landmarks and “first Blacks” — first Black secretary of state, first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, first Black national security adviser, etc.
But what also stands out is how back in the run-up to the 1996 presidential election, he was the first Black presidential possibility in those days to be robustly viewed by leading politicians, donors, journalists and other political junkies from both parties to potentially become the first Black president.
Then in late 1995 Powell dashed such hopes, announcing that he didn’t have the “fire in the belly” to take on the massive campaign that such an aspiration required.